Miller Pope never planned to open a motel or an inn or suites or villas or apartments or a beach club, or whatever people are calling it these days.
He and his wife, Helen, were just seeking somewhere on the ocean to escape Connecticut’s dreary winters, to bring their children for a couple of weeks each summer.
North Carolina was an accident. He blames the rain. And he thanks his wife.
“She did all the business dealings,” he says. “I was the artist, the dreamer.”
A charming Southern gentleman whose years in New York didn’t dampen his drawl, Miller left his home in Greenville, South Carolina, at 17 “to fight the good war.” He wanted to travel, to get in on the action. But some sergeant saw his sketchbook, and soon he was in Washington, D.C., working as an illustrator for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Leatherneck magazine.
After the war, Miller ventured to New York, where he drew for Glamour and Seventeen. He used friends for models, including his high school sweetheart, Joanne Woodward, in an advertisement for a shirtwaist dress. Through the 1950s, he built his business.
By the golden age of advertising, he had an office on Madison Avenue and was drawing for Reader’s Digest, Time, and Life. He was one of the original Mad Men made famous by the television show of the same name. “Oh,” he says slyly, “we had all kinds of fun.”
He introduced himself to Helen at a party, after another girl crept into his room and stole his underwear. “She met my underpants before she met me,” Miller says. Helen was from Scarsdale, New York, and had graduated from Mount Holyoke. “A debutante,” he says. “High society. Way out of my league. But there must have been something appealing.” They were married for 51 years.
When their children were small, they moved into a sprawling house with a pool in Westport, Connecticut. Each summer, they rented it to vacationers and chose a new beach to explore.
Portugal and Peru, Mexico and Morocco, a dozen islands in the Caribbean, always looking for something they couldn’t quite find. “I almost bought a Moorish castle in Spain for $25,000. From the tower, you could see the Mediterranean,” says Miller. But the place was in ruins — repairs would have cost $1 million.
In 1969, after a decade of searching, Miller’s mother proposed a family reunion in South Carolina. She called everywhere between Savannah, Georgia, and North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but couldn’t find a place for the week she wanted to go. So, on a rainy Saturday that spring, she started driving north along the coast. She drove until she found sun — just across the state line.
The first beach in North Carolina was over a rickety bridge, along a remote barrier island only eight miles long, where a couple dozen fishermen lived year-round. The village had a tiny grocery, a long pier, a small motel, and about 20 rental cottages. Miller’s mother steered down the sand road and quickly found one that was available. When she told her family about Ocean Isle, they couldn’t find it on a map.
Miller thought Helen would hate it. A rundown bungalow in the middle of nowhere, so far south, so far removed from any semblance of society, with nowhere to eat out or shop or get her hair done.
That first afternoon they donned bathing suits and walked together to the beach, through the waist-high sea oats, down a dune, and along the long, empty stretch of Atlantic. The water was bathtub-warm and calm, green-gray beneath the amber sun. Helen dove in and called him to join her.
For a while, they floated silently, tasting the salt spray, watching the seagulls. Then Helen threw her arms around his neck. “This is it,” he remembers her saying. “This is where I want to be.”
A few months after that first trip to Ocean Isle, in the winter of 1969, Helen left her mink coat in Connecticut, flew to Wilmington, rented a car, and set out to buy a beach cottage.
She walked for miles, her bare feet making puddles in the sand, but saw no houses for sale. All she found was a lot near the center of the island — 75 feet wide, 125 feet across — stretching from the sea to the salt marsh.
“We’ll have to drill a well,” she told Miller. The island had no water then. But Helen was in love.
They paid $15,000 for the land. “Just a lot of sand and sea oats,” Miller says. By the time Helen got home, he had sketched a bungalow on a napkin.
At first, the house was just for their family. The kids were teenagers who would soon leave for college. So he made the drawing bigger and divided the home into a duplex, so they could bring friends. Surely the in-laws would want to visit, maybe both sets at once. Then there were four units.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, just drawing what I wanted,” Miller says. He showed the design to his brother, a builder, who took it to an architect for tweaking.
Miller wanted to call their place Poseidon. But Helen said the God of the Sea couldn’t wield his pitchfork in the Bible Belt. Miller was drinking at the airport in Bridgeport, Connecticut, waiting to fly back to Wilmington, when he noticed the cocktail napkin: Four Winds Bar. The perfect name for his oceanfront quadruplex.
“We decided to rent it out when we weren’t using it, figured once we retired, we’d have it to ourselves,” Miller says. Then an adjacent lot went up for sale, so of course he bought it — and an old concrete building beside that, along with its land. Then a pink cottage, and another lot. Soon his property was as long as it was wide, three football fields of beach and dunes and wetlands.
Their Connecticut friends thought they were crazy. Why would they invest in a place so far from civilization? What would they do there? Who would possibly come?
The Popes tried to describe the briny smell of the breeze, the rhythm of the surf, the overwhelming peace of the place. Some things, they couldn’t explain — at least not to their Northern neighbors. On Ocean Isle, no one cares about college degrees or pedigrees. No one dresses up. Ever. Names aren’t for dropping. Neighbors fish and barbecue together, and watch the sun arc over their island.
For six years, the Popes waited and planned and pined for their Eden by the sea. Every time they visited, it became harder to leave. By 1975, their daughter, Debra, had graduated from Clemson University and set out to become an art teacher; their son, Gary, was on the road with his rock band; and The Winds had grown to three buildings, plus an oceanfront pool. Miller and Helen sold their big house in Connecticut and built a fourth building at The Winds, with a reception area out front, an office in back, and a studio apartment overhead: their new home.
“Mom would be on the phone, writing down reservations while she cooked dinner. Dad was the maintenance man, and he could barely change a lightbulb,” says Debra, 60.
She and her brother learned to surf at The Winds, to catch drum, and to sail catamarans. Sometimes, when they came home from college, they helped at the hotel. But neither wanted to work there full-time, not even in summer. And they never planned on going back there to live.
About halfway between the port of Wilmington and Myrtle Beach’s bustling boardwalk, The Winds Resort Beach Club is an isolated, aging oasis on the southern tip of North Carolina’s coast.
The retro resort includes 14 buildings that straddle a sliver of sand barely a half-mile wide. For 40 years, the resort Miller and Helen created has drawn families from across the state — and around the world.
You won’t find bellmen in the little lobby. You can’t get valet parking or room service.
But the Popes added an elevator, so you don’t have to haul your suitcase up three flights of stairs. You can park right out front for free. And the 86 units are all clean and cute, from the one-bedroom oceanfront efficiencies to the six-bedroom houses on the marsh, each decorated differently with sailboats and shells, geckos and starfish. The three pools and 14 Jacuzzis always sparkle sky blue. Towering palms shade rope hammocks; barbecue grills flank wooden picnic tables; roses, hibiscus, and banana trees bloom along the narrow paths. And the small barrier island faces south, so the sun warms the sand all day.
Every morning, the cook makes hash browns, hotcakes, and biscuits — you can carry coffee to the beach to watch the sun rise. In the afternoon, the tiki hut bartender serves a frozen chocolate drink called “Cocoa Snow.” At night, it gets so dark you can sip wine by the dunes and watch sea turtles spin their nests in the sand.
Miller lost Helen years ago. He’s 85 now, and he leans on a cane. When he bends to weed the garden, he gets dizzy. If it’s not too hot, he still holds court by the pool.
His son and daughter run the two-acre retreat and worry about how to hold on.
It’s a delicate balance, they say, trying to modernize their little piece of paradise while preserving its past. Trying to hold on to an anachronism in the midst of mounting maintenance and flood insurance and mega hotels.
“My life has been one long vacation,” Miller says, drinking iced tea in The Garden Room on a sunny afternoon. “It’s been like living at a beachfront estate with all these bikes and hot tubs, our own bar — all the amenities at your beck and call.”
His son, Gary, 58, laughs. “You got the dream,” he says. “I got the nightmare.”
Beside the Atlantic, the beach is flat. Then it gently climbs to low dunes. A wooden walkway leads to The Winds, where blooming yuccas rim the oceanfront pool.
From a striped lounge chair on the deck, you can see an endless swath of surf.
Hand-painted arrows point to “Ice machine” and “Fun court.” Calypso music drifts from the octagonal tiki hut, where the menu includes nachos and piña coladas. Bins of towels and foam noodles, Nerf footballs and horseshoes are tucked into the trails.
The buildings are low and boxy. Each oceanfront suite has a living room, a little kitchen, and a patio or balcony overlooking the ocean. Lush gardens with fountains and benches beckon below.
“I always send people there because the place is just so unique,” says Jim Pierce, part-owner of Sharky’s restaurant on Ocean Isle. “All the foliage and paths, the laid-back atmosphere and throw-back charm. And the Popes are all so friendly. I hope it never changes.”
Ask guests why they come, and they cite the beach, the isolation, and the people. Most of The Winds’ 42 employees have worked there for 20 years or more. The manager and gardener have been there from the beginning.
“People know they’ve arrived at our property because of the palms,” says gardener Randy Keesee, who trucked in a dozen varieties from Florida. “This is the farthest north that subtropical foliage will grow, and I have to keep some plants in greenhouses over the winter. But I want this place to feel like the Caribbean in North Carolina.”
Keesee met his wife at The Winds, where she is the food and beverage manager. The maintenance man married them. The whole staff attended. “Every year,” Keesee says, “our mailbox is flooded with Christmas cards from Winds guests.”
So many families have been coming for so long that their kids grow up together; they request the same week every year. And, of course, the Popes know everyone.
“No one calls me Mr. Pope here,” says Miller. “That was my old man.”
His artwork adorns every unit, paintings and prints and photos. In the lobby, you can buy cards with his sketches of the island, coloring books he drew, pirate dictionaries he illustrated.
And on most summer evenings, just before sunset, you can find him at a crowded table telling stories — of drunken bridegrooms and bales of pot stashed in the pool house, of a sea serpent that turned out to be an alligator struggling in the salt water, of 40 years of living on the edge.
At Ocean Isle, the year-round population has grown to 550. In summer, it swells to 25,000. Cookie-cutter condominiums and gated communities swallow both shores. On the west end of the island, a single high-rise throws long shadows across the sand.
But there’s still no mall, no chain grocery, or even a stoplight. The closest McDonald’s is seven miles away, over the bridge.
And though people vacation differently now, they still come to The Winds for the same reasons Helen was drawn a half-century ago: the pristine beach, the piping plovers, the way the molten sea mirrors the sky.
Last year, the cook served 50,000 hot breakfasts in The Garden Room. And summer weekends all were booked by Easter.
“In the early days, most families stayed two weeks,” Debra says. “They would call ahead to make sure there wasn’t a phone in the room.” They didn’t want to be disturbed while they were on vacation.
Now, most people come for long weekends and email ahead to ask about Internet connections. “They still go to the beach and sit under umbrellas,” Debra says. “But instead of watching the waves, they’re on their phones.”
Shoulder seasons are stretching longer, with spring weddings and fall golf getaways. Last year, 65 couples said, “I do” on the beach. Golfers teed off at more than 100 courses within a half-hour’s drive. Other guests bought packages that included kayak tours and tennis lessons, wine tastings and massages.
“Helen used to ask everyone, before she’d rent to them, if they were married. We didn’t want to get a bad reputation,” Miller says. “Now, we have shack-up weekends. Except Debra makes me call them Romance Packages.”
Gary runs the resort’s website. But Miller has always designed the ads. The first was a worn pair of tennis shoes on the sand. “An old-sneakers kind of place,” was his tagline, meaning you don’t have to dress up at The Winds — from back when people did dress up.
A few years ago, Debra convinced him that no one wears sneakers to the beach anymore, so he changed his marketing — adding a starfish beside a new pair of old sneakers. “Dad doesn’t really get the changing times,” Debra says. “So for a long time, we didn’t change much around here.”
Then carpets started molding and pipes started corroding and flood insurance soared 75 percent.
And people started expecting therapeutic mattresses, flat-screen TVs, and high-speed Internet at the beach.
Gary took a break from touring with his band in 1977. His grandmother had moved to Ocean Isle, and she was ill. He planned to stay a couple of weeks and take care of her — a month at most — and then he’d be back touring.
For a while, Gary ran a beach shop at The Winds, selling suntan lotion and lip balm. He rented Jet Skis, taught sailing. Fixed porches, cleaned pools.
Then, he met Martha, a real estate agent on the island, and he never left. Their children grew up at The Winds, collecting shells, surfing, having birthday parties at the pool.
Debra moved to Virginia and designed advertisements for department stores, opened a gift shop. She came home to Ocean Isle in 1978. Her kids wound up growing up with their cousins, chasing ghost crabs at low tide.
In 1985, Miller Pope went to Raleigh to meet with tourism officials and helped get the road to Ocean Isle included on official maps. “All of a sudden, our beach was open for business.”
In the 1990s, The Winds went corporate and became a Clarion Inn. But managers wanted the Popes to build a bigger lobby and add a business center to every room “and all kinds of other things that didn’t make sense for us,” Gary says. After three years, he dropped the franchise and won’t consider another. “We don’t want to be part of a chain,” he says. “People seem to like that we’re not like anywhere else.”
In 1996, the family turned their attention to helping the family matriarch, Helen, in her battle with Alzheimer’s. When her mom died a decade later, Debra started remodeling: Out with the double beds, in with quilted kings — and all new linens. Bamboo floors replaced carpets. Fat TVs turned into flat screens.
“It’s tough with an old place like this,” Gary says. “Every time you turn around, it’s something else. We try to keep up, do things incrementally. But you just have to keep pouring everything you make back into it.”
Many of the buildings need new wiring. The men’s bathroom by the pool needs a makeover. Even the tiki hut needs rethatching.
“Insurance went up so much that we had to raise our deductible from $5,000 to $50,000 per building,” Debra says. “If this place ever blew down, we wouldn’t be able to rebuild.”
Gary wants to build a wheelchair ramp across the dunes, upgrade the hotel’s bandwidth, add a wishing well. “Couldn’t hurt.”
Debra wants to install stainless steel appliances in the penthouse, enlarge the bathrooms, add double showers. Maybe even get windmills. “We get such a great breeze.”
Miller has one more vacant lot — room to build another building, add more units, another hot tub, maybe meeting space.
But he doesn’t want The Winds to grow or change. “Doesn’t need to,” he says.
“Over the years, I’ve had offers; all kinds of people want to buy this place and turn it corporate — or knock it down and build condos,” he says. “But this place means more to me than money.” He won’t name a price he would even consider. “This is what we built, who we are. When I’m gone, it will be all that’s left of me.”
He hopes his grandkids — all in their 20s — will come back soon and hitch their sails to The Winds.
Gary’s son, John, is studying mechanical engineering at East Carolina University. Daughter Sydney got a taste of the hotel business as a concierge at a swanky Charleston, South Carolina, resort.
Debra’s son, Chasen, sells real estate in Charleston. Her daughter, Jessica, stays home with her baby boy.
“The kids are all gone,” Martha says. “They’re not coming back.”
Miller’s face falls. Gary grins. “When I was their age,” he says, “I wasn’t going to come back, either.”
Every year, the family looks at the numbers. How long can we hold on to The Winds? Ten years? Twenty?
Gary worries about wiring and pipes. Debra worries about hurricanes.
Miller, ever the artist and dreamer, is convinced that as long as people want to escape, to unwind at the ocean and reconnect with their families and dig in the sand and bob in the surf, as long as there are fish to catch and pelicans to watch and dolphins to swim with, there will always be guests to fill his aging anachronism.
So the Popes keep struggling to shore up the past — all the while planning for the future.
The hardest part? Remembering to slow down enough to still enjoy the now. To get out of their offices, away from their computers, and enjoy their little piece of paradise. Their guests work all year to come for just one week. Every evening, they get to step onto the deck behind The Winds, look out over the silver sea, and watch the moon rise.